Redeeming a ‘Teachable Moment’

A professor, a policeman, and the President offered all of us an opportunity to reconsider issues of race, class, and justice in America. But are we able to grasp the deeper lessons? Seven leaders reflect on the real message of the Henry Louis Gates controversy.

Redeeming a 'Teachable Moment' for urban faithA special forum featuring William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston.

People wanted to make the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest and subsequent brouhaha a parable about a lot of things — the prevalence of racial profiling, Ivy League elitism, disrespect for law enforcement, racism, classism, black rage, white privilege. The episode may have had shades of all those things. But the truth is always more complicated and multilayered than the pre-wrapped boxes in which we’re inclined to deposit racial events. And in the end, nobody’s mind really seemed to change about any of the issues at stake. Even Gates and Sergeant Crowley, the arresting officer, said they would simply “agree to disagree” after their much-heralded reunion at President Obama’s so-called “Beer Summit.”

Now, a few weeks removed from the drama of the moment, and with the advantage of hindsight and cooler emotions, perhaps there’s a better chance of drawing some meaningful lessons from what has been glibly labeled by the media as “Gates-gate.” We asked seven Christian scholars, pastors, and urban leaders to give us their perspectives on the real message of the Gates-Crowley-Obama “teachable moment.”

William PannellWILLIAM PANNELL: I was listening to President Obama’s press conference, and when I heard the answer he gave about Gates and the cop, I knew he had made a serious mistake. I said out loud, “Oh, no. Don’t do that.” He was out of line not knowing all the facts, and he responded out of his experience of being black in a nation run by white cops. His answer was understandable, given this history. And this history is still very much alive all across this nation. But he is the President of this country; of all people in this country, including those who have never been in the back of a bus. No president should rush to judgment and speak off the cuff as he did. I don’t know what he said to Crowley during their meeting in Washington, but I think he owes him an apology.

The other mistake he made was to be much too laudatory of Professor Gates. Gates is a hot-dog professor at Harvard who loves the spotlight and enjoys a reputation of being superior in human relations. At Harvard he is virtually untouchable, in part because he is black. He is a fine scholar of course, but this isn’t about scholarship. Further complicating this event is the fact that Mr. Obama is an honored graduate of Harvard. Too much baggage for a president to carry on this one.

What have we learned? Not much, probably, for those whose experience on either side of this issue precludes the possibility of seeing both sides of this event. Black people are still being mistreated by white cops — black ones, too, for that matter. A cop is a cop; they represent the army of occupation in all our cities. Civilians beware!

On the other hand, policing is much more complicated an enterprise today than in the more recent past. And most departments have made strong efforts at preparing their officers to respect civilians of all colors in the line of their duties. But it is still true that racism is alive and well in this country. If I were I still a father of teenage boys, I would warn them about any encounter with police. I did this when my boys were in their teens, and I’d still do it today.

The way forward in this arena of mistrust requires that we open discussions between “civilians” and the “army.” When such conversations do occur, they are most often heated because they have been triggered by some encounter between the police and a civilian. Riots have been set off this way. Ask Rodney King.

What we need is a series of regular backyard conversations between police and neighborhoods in an attempt to develop “communities of discourse,” climates where trust can be developed. The most promising centers for such discourse could be local congregations, but better in someone’s backyard. The barbecue tastes better there.

Then this: One of these days the executives of major news outlets need to get converted from their corporate greed and realize that free speech is really not free. It carries with it serious responsibilities for the general welfare of a people. Spreading hate on CNN, Fox, or any other outlet ill serves the nation. We are very badly divided in this country. Under intense pressures owing to the economic crisis, nerves become frayed and the natives get restless. If we cannot talk about our differences, we are in serious trouble. And our differences are anchored in fear. So let’s talk about what makes us afraid.

Dr. William E. Pannell is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. In the past he has served as a professor of evangelism and as director of the African American Studies Program. A gifted preacher and professor of homiletics, Pannell has nurtured several generations of Fuller students from the classroom to the pulpit. He currently serves on the board of Taylor University in Indiana and is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Coming Race Wars? A Cry for Reconciliation (1993), Evangelism from the Bottom Up (1992), and My Friend, the Enemy (1968).

Cheryl SandersCHERYL SANDERS: I think the real message of the Gates affair is that white privilege does not readily convey to affluent and influential people of color. As a next step, beyond meeting over beers, perhaps President Obama should consider convening town meetings around the nation to discuss these issues, if he can garner the political courage and moral authority to do so.

At Third Street Church of God, we have incorporated the ministry of reconciliation into our mission statement and ministry priorities. One reason why race relations remains problematic in the United States is the failure of Christians to acknowledge that all persons are made in the image of God and that God is no respecter of persons. Therefore we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the racism, sexism, and elitism practiced in many of our churches reflect the will and Word of God.

The special role churches could play to bring healing to our racial rifts would require recollection, repentance, restitution, and reconciliation, in that order. Reconciliation requires more than beer-bottle diplomacy — there must be transparency and truth-telling with the intention of actually changing the way we relate to each other.

Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders has been senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., since 1997, and is Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity where she has taught since 1984. She has authored several books, including Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth & the Poor (1997) and Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (1996).

Glenn LouryGLENN LOURY: The real message? I think it’s that the president must do a better job managing the “race” issue. I recognize that this issue is pretty far down the list of things he has to worry about, and rightly so. But, as the principal public official now in the position of framing the national discourse on race-related matters, he has an awesome responsibility to get it right. And, he’s been revealed by his handling of this incident to be not nearly as sure-footed as conventional wisdom would have it. This is likely to cost him politically over the long run, which cannot be good for African Americans or progressives in this country.

We have to find a way to talk honestly about our problems, which lie at the intersection of race and class. It’s not blackness in general, or in the abstract, that is the issue. The racial profiling of successful black Americans is not the deep problem here. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not a problem. I’m saying if that were all that was going on, it wouldn’t be a fundamental blemish on our democracy. What is a fundamental stain on our democracy, and what gives rise to a great hypocrisy in the way our country presents itself to the rest of the world, is the virtual police state that is being run in our midst, with its great weight falling on the backs of the black and brown, urban, low-income, poorly educated, socially marginal populations who have fallen between the cracks. This incident, and the way in which it has been handled, including by the President of the United States, reveals just how far we are from being able to confront our true racial demons.

What role should the church play? No more or less than in any other central area of American life (the environment; economic justice; war and peace, etc.). I don’t believe that this is a “why can’t we all get along?” kind of spiritual battle. It is a political and economic battle, which of course has a spiritual and moral dimension. But, it is not a question of personal morality (how should black and white individuals deal with encounters like the one in Cambridge last month?). Rather, it is a question of public morality — that is, how should we as a nation deal with those who are being left behind?

Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He taught previously at Boston University, Harvard, and Northwestern. In addition to his scholarly work, Loury is a prominent social critic and public intellectual, a frequent commentator on national radio and television, and an advisor on social issues to business and political leaders throughout the country. His books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award) and The Anatomy of Racial Equality.

Curtiss Paul DeYoungCURTISS PAUL DEYOUNG: The confusing details surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department demonstrate once again the challenge of healing the open wound of racism in the United States. The incident reveals the often unseen depth of generational scars and raw fears experienced by persons of color, even those who sit in elite positions in the country. It also shows how those serving within institutions in our country fail, despite their best efforts, to recognize these effects and order their behaviors accordingly.

Until our best minds and most committed healers focus on the deeper levels of bigotry and systemic injustice, and implement a process for transformation, we will continue to experience the symptoms of this entrenched reality.

Curtiss Paul DeYoung is Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has experience in urban multicultural ministry in the United States and South Africa, and his research interests include multicultural interpretations of the Bible and interfaith dialogue. DeYoung is the author of several books, including Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice.

Art LuceroARTURO LUCERO: I think one of the main lessons from the Gates incident is that frustrating circumstances can be a seedbed for misunderstandings and unfortunate consequences. Proverbs says, “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.” And it later says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

The Civil Rights Act protects all Americans from discrimination. But it does not change the heart of man. The only real answer to matters of race and class is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Government legislation may impact our actions, but the Word of God transforms our lives. It teaches us to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34-35), to put the interests of others above our own (Phil. 2:3-4), and to forgive (Eph. 4:32b). Although the Word of God is clear in its teachings on this matter, some preachers of the Word are not.

The role of the church is to bring people to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:12-13). Paul goes on to describe how we are to reflect that maturity, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

As long as people of all ethnicities perpetuate the injustices of the past and their grievances toward other ethnicities, the wound will never heal. The only biblical solution is for pastors to teach their flocks to forgive those who hurt us (Eph. 4:32b), love our enemies, and to pray and do good to those who hate us (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27).

Arturo Lucero is the president and founder of Multi Cultural Ministry and also serves as an adult ministry pastor at Sunrise Church in Rialto, California, a multiethnic congregation of 4,000. As the former director of Bible Church Mission, a church planting agency, he developed a strategy for ministering to the growing Hispanic community through an established non-Hispanic church. As a conference speaker and consultant to churches, his focus is on equipping churches for reaching the immigrant community. He has contributed chapters to the books Reuniting the Family of God, edited by A. Charles Ware and Eugene Seals, and Just Don’t Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage, and Parenting, edited by George and Sherelyn Yancey.

Vashti Murphy McKenzieVASHTI MURPHY MCKENZIE: I think a big lesson from the Gates incident is that stereotypes persist in our world. Stereoptypical attitudes will meet you in the boardroom, classroom, locker room, on the street, or even at your front door.

Stereotypical attitudes, unfortunately, are a part of our everyday lives. We’d like to think they’re dead and gone, but often they just depart for a season. We stereotype each other all the time. Just when you think it’s safe, it will happen to you or to someone you know. And whenever it happens, it hurts.

When I read the news account that Professor Gates was arrested in his own home, it suddenly didn’t seem like 2009. Instead, it felt more like 1959. Racial profiling was alleged, but law enforcement officials also felt unfairly judged for trying to carry out their jobs. Stereotypes can affect all sides of a conflict.

A stereotype paints men and women a color that they have not earned and do not deserve. There are stereotypes in every person’s closet, and they come out at the most inconvenient times. Stereotypes are a group fixed notions about a person or group of persons or the conceptioins that surround a position or occupation. There are stereotypes about certain ethnic, cultural, or religious groups. There are stereotypes surrounding Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. There are stereotypes surrounding men and women. There are stereotypes surrounding people of African, Irish, Polish, or Hispanic descent. One person may be viewed as confident, while another doing the same thing is considered arrogant. One person’s action is called “survival,” while another doing the same thing is “looting.” One person running down the street may be considered jogging, but another person doing the same thing must be running away from something because they must have done something.

Even Jesus experienced stereotyping. In the Gospel of John, chapter one, Philip found Nathanael and told him that they’d found the One that Moses had written about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote — “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” What was Nathaniel’s response? “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael hadn’t even met Jesus, hadn’t shaken his hand, didn’t Googled him, hadn’t read his résumé. He just figured that he wasn’t any good because he came from Nazareth. We all dream of a better world where character is elevated over color and class. But if you want a better world, you have to work for it. It won’t come by wishing.

John wrote about a beloved community; Martin Luther King Jr. preached about it; Donny Hathaway sang about it, “Someday we’ll all be free.” But it won’t come by wishing; it will only come by seeking God and working for a change. We need to work on getting rid of these stereotypes today.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the first female bishop in its history — and serves in the 13th Episcopal District, which includes Tennessee and Kentucky. She is a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Her latest book is Swapping Housewives: Rachel & Jacob & Leah. Her teaching, inspirational meditations, and commentaries are available as a podcast at ThisIsYourWakeupCallOnline.com.

Tali HairstonTALI HAIRSTON: The conclusions drawn from racial incidence in America come quickly and often with undeniable passion. The rarer moments within racial matters is when someone creates a moment of pause that alters the mental landscape of how many imagined or consider race.

President Obama recently created such a pause when he sought to reframe the Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley situation as a “teachable moment.” This triggered a litany of reflections on one of America’s oldest closet skeletons. What is inferred by the President is that his election did not signal an end to all things racial. Rather, America is at best more racially conscious and less resistant to new paradigms related to race.

What we clearly lack is strategic engagement and the intentional effort needed to truly address race in America. This leaves us with two basic options which were regularly demonstrated in this situation. We either choose to ignore the issue of race, believing that if we do so racism will fix itself. Or, we wait until the next race-based conflict and react vociferously with insight and passion, hoping to change someone’s mind or at best give them a piece of ours.

For the Christian community, I argue both these reactions are not in line with Christian mission and witness. From the perspective of an African American male with an Irish family name; living in an Asian community; working alongside Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and Gentile for reconciliation and community development; the issue of race has grown more complex by our lack of missional intentionality. We engage race like a couple in a struggling marriage. Problems are only addressed while emotions and sensitivities are running high. But when the current issue de-escalates, we go back to our churches, neighborhoods, TV shows, and hobbies. This assures we will not be equipped as a nation or as Christians to properly engage “the other” when it most matters.

How much money has been invested in turning the racial tide? What institutions produce marketplace materials that counteract the million-dollar radio and TV personalities that so easily fan the flames of racial ignorance? Christian mission and witness has always demanded intentionality, resources, planning, time, leadership, collaboration, prayer, and hope. If the church could be a witness at this level, maybe change wouldn’t feel so much like a pipe dream.

Tali Hairston is Special Assistant to the President at Seattle Pacific University and director of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. At the helm of the Perkins Center, he is leading Seattle Pacific in a comprehensive initiative born out of a dream and a partnership between SPU President Philip Eaton and the legendary reconciliation advocate Dr. John Perkins. Hairston is passionate about seeing SPU contribute to the reconciliation movement in Seattle and the nation.

  1. What an incredible collection of opinions. I like the balance of social critique and pastoral wisdom. I especially resonate with William Pannell’s comments, which have some hard hitting words for everyone involved in the Gates mess. Everybody got dirty in this one. Mr. Pannell, thanks for your honesty and realism.

  2. I was waiting for someone to tell us that talking about race all the time IS the problem. Had Gates not been naturally hyped up about “racism in America” prior to Sergeant Crowley knocking on his door, I doubt we would’ve ever had this silly, media-propelled episode to talk about.

  3. Great stuff! Thank you so much for this. This media story “came and went” too quickly, without enough reflection on underlying issues. It was great to read this.

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